Former jail guards who falsified records sentenced in 2015 inmate dehydration death

Two former Island County jail guards were sentenced Tuesday for their roles in what many are calling a systemic failure by Island County Jail staff that led to the 2015 dehydration death of a 25-year-old inmate.

The case was moved to Whatcom County in July 2017, after potential conflicts of interest were raised in Island County.

In early March 2015, Keaton Farris was charged with second-degree identity theft in San Juan County. He later missed a court appearance and was arrested on a felony warrant March 20 in Snohomish County. Farris was shuffled between Snohomish and Skagit county jails before arriving at the Island County Jail in Coupeville on March 26.

While there, Farris exhibited signs of a mental health crisis. He was deemed a risk to officers’ safety after he pulled a deputy’s hand through the door slot when offered a cup of water, and had to be physically restrained to attend a court appearance on April 1, according to court records.

Farris flooded his cell several days later, had dunked his head in the toilet and was found lying on the floor making swimming motions in the half-inch of cold water. The water in his cell was shut off and was only to be turned on during meal times. There were special safety protocols, which included checking on him every hour, that were meant to be followed but weren’t, records show.

A day before his death, a nurse checked on Farris through the door slot, but did not go inside for fear he might attack her. When she asked how he was doing, Farris responded “Not good,” and said he needed a medical professional.

Another doctor from Western State Hospital attempted to interview him the same day, also through the door, and said he believed Farris was in an acute psychotic condition, records state. Farris had had a mental breakdown in late 2013, but was finally getting back to himself, his family said. Farris was never given any medication while in jail.

In the throes of a mental health crisis, Farris died — naked on the floor of his cell — of dehydration and malnutrition April 7. An autopsy revealed he had lost 20 pounds. His body wasn’t found until hours later, around 12:40 a.m. on April 8.

“He was a wonderful thriving young man who never got the chance of a life to live beyond 25 years old. He was a good young man who loved his sister, family and his community,” said Farris’ aunt, Della Ferrians.

A systemic failure

David Wayne Lind, 55, and Mark Edward Moffitt, 61, pleaded guilty Tuesday morning in Whatcom County Superior Court to falsifying the jail logs that made it appear they checked on Farris more than they did. The discrepancies were found after reviewing jail cameras, court records state.

“It was a total failure by the entire staff, by people that should have known better. The psychologist, the nurse and they just did not follow through. Everybody has a part in this tragedy,” said Whatcom County Prosecuting Attorney Dave McEachran, who handled the case for Island County.

Defense attorney Doug Hyldahl agreed Farris’ death was preventable, and due to a systemic failure.

“The jail had systems, had procedures written down, but they were not followed. There was a callousness from the top down in respect to the following of these procedures, specifically with regards to safety,” Hyldahl said.

During sentencing Tuesday morning, Lind apologized for what took place at the jail, but said his actions were part of the jail culture and overall careless attitude.

“It’s unbelievable. When I found Mr. Farris deceased, I was stunned, I was in shock, in disbelief,” Lind said.

Moffitt echoed Lind’s sentiments of the jail culture, saying “I was caught in the same trap that he was in that jail. I was just as shocked when I found out he passed away.”

Moffitt then turned to Farris’ family in the courtroom.

“Most of all, I would like to apologize to the family, the mother, father. Most of all I want to apologize to Keaton,” he said, through tears. “I take responsibility for what I did. I deserve whatever punishment they give me. I’m sorry.”

Throughout the proceedings, Ferrians, Farris’ aunt, stood in between the court benches, facing the men and judge, holding a picture of Farris.

Before sentencing the men, Judge Ira Uhrig said there were few times he’s felt powerless as a judge, except when presiding over cases where a life has been lost. He said Farris would never see another sunset, snowfall or summer, nor would his family share those moments with him.

“We owe more to incarcerated individuals. Incarcerated individuals should not die of dehydration and starvation,” Uhrig said. “In situations such as this, a judge can’t right a wrong, because this wrong is unrightable.”

The men were sentenced to five days in jail, with 85 days of community service. The remaining nine months of their sentences were suspended.

For Farris’ family, they’re not sure they’ll ever get justice for his death. Fred Farris, Keaton Farris’ father, said McEachran told them it was hard to pin the death on one person, because there were so many missteps by so many people.

“It’s hard to hold hope,” Tiffany Ferrians, Keaton Farris’ mother, said.

“Just as much as I want somebody that did something wrong to be held accountable, I don’t want anybody that didn’t do anything wrong to be held accountable,” Fred Farris said. “At the same time, these guys really were his lifeline. Not just these two, but all the guards that were in there.”

“They could have walked in there,” Della Ferrians added.

The family reached a $4 million settlement with three counties in December 2015 for Farris’ death. Since that time, Fred Farris and the family have had an active role in reform measures taken at the Island County Jail.

Daily reminders

Fred Farris said his son was more than his mental illness. Keaton Farris is remembered by many as someone who was always good for a laugh, and who enjoyed friends, family and sports.

“The most important thing, and it’s why we do this stuff, is because we would never want it to happen to anybody else. For the public, if Keaton’s memory can hang on for those that weren’t close to him, it can be a reminder of what can happen,” Fred Farris said.

“We just live with it all the time,” Tiffany Ferrians, his mother, added. “I think he’s always with us.”

The family said there are daily reminders of Keaton Farris’ life. His friends reach out to share heartfelt stories, there’s a basketball court in his name and a plaque hangs at the jail.

Della Ferrians, Farris’ aunt, said she has a larger version of the picture she held in court that shows just Farris’ eyes. She said it sits on the shelf and his eyes move around the living room, as if he’s there.

“We carry pieces of Keaton with us everywhere we go,” Della Ferrians said. “There’s no keeping him alive. He’s alive with us. He goes everywhere with us.”

Denver Pratt: 360-715-2236, @DenverPratt